27 Feb 2018

Little asks Law Commission to look at abortion law

5:14 pm on 27 February 2018

Justice Minister Andrew Little has asked the Law Commission for advice on reworking New Zealand's abortion law.

Andrew Little

Andrew Little Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

The current law is more than 40 years old and the government has indicated it wants abortion to be treated as a health issue rather than a criminal one.

He said the government believed the sense of criminalisation in place around abortion should not be there, and made the law unfit for the 21st century.

In a letter to the Law Commission, Mr Little asked it to advise him on what changes could be made to the country's legal framework to align it with that approach.

"Specifically, I expect the scope of the Law Commission's advice to include reviewing the criminal aspects of abortion law, and the statutory grounds for an abortion and [the] process for receiving services."

However, he said the Commission did not need to review the offence of killing an unborn child in specific circumstances.

"For example, where a pregnant woman is the subject of a violent assault and as a result loses the pregnancy. That is something that you do want the criminal law to sanction.

"But what we don't want is women who are considering an abortion left thinking that they are committing a criminal act by doing so."

Mr Little said he had given the Law Commission eight months to conduct its review and report back to him.

He has suggested the Commission talk with health professionals and also seek public feedback on the proposed changes.

Abortion Law Reform Association president Terry Bellamak said seeking input from the Law Commission was an important step in making abortion much more accessible.

She said people currently had to jump through too many hoops and most abortions were approved on mental health grounds.

"Rape is not a ground, neither is extreme age or extreme youth," she said.

"They are merely factors that can be taken into account, and of course reasons like contraceptive failure or economic factors because you can't afford another child, those don't even figure in."

Ms Bellamak said widening access to abortion would also save money.

"At present you have to ask certifying consultants for approval which is costing a lot of time and money."

"Other countries with more sensible regimes aren't paying people to check the boxes and give approval."

She said the Law Commission should seek advice from overseas health professionals, rather than just making enquiries within New Zealand's medical profession.

Spokesperson Michelle Kaufman from Family Life International, a pro-life lobby group, said it was appalled by the Justice Minster's decision.

She said abortion was currently included in the Crimes Act for a reason, and treating it as a health issue ignored the health of an unborn child.

"An unborn child can be operated on and given transfusions when they need proper healthcare.

"But when Andrew Little and the Labour Party say that abortion is healthcare they are saying that it is healthcare to kill a vulnerable pre-born child."

Ms Kaufman said more protection was needed for children, not less.

Mr Little said asking the Law Commission to review abortion law might take some of the emotion out of the debate.

He hoped that if it became a public issue, debate would be focused and not spin out of control into personal attacks from either side.

Mr Little will meet with the Law Commission tomorrow.